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  • Family Vacation Value Destinations
    2005/06 (Vol. 3)

    by Mitch Kaplan

    **** See 2009/10 Vacation Value Destinations HERE

    Photo courtesy Okemo, VT Our ongoing search for resorts that offer the best value in a family ski/ride vacation continues. How do we define best value? The "value" of a winter family vacation lies in the quality of the experience, the overall sense of satisfaction and the creation of great shared memories. While price remains important always, value is not all about price. In judging a potential vacation for its value, we remind you to look at the big picture, imagine yourself in that picture, and try to best evaluate the fit.

    Keep in mind the qualities that make a family-friendly resort: ski terrain appropriate for everyone in the family; acceptable lodging (both type and location); half- and full-day ski programs; day care; and apres-ski opportunities. The destination should fit your family.

    And, remember, time of year directly affects cost and can affect snow conditions. Skiing at Thanksgiving will be cheap, but conditions might well be dicey. Skiing during Presidents' Week in February will more likely mean great snow, but at peak cost. The best value of all may be late-March and early April: the weather warms, low season prices return and, because March is generally the month that brings the most snow, there's plenty of white stuff.

    In truth, most ski resorts of significant size now fill most families' needs. We personally prefer less scale and more content, but many folks want the size and variety that a Vail or Whistler/Blackomb brings.

    This year, we’ve added some new resorts to our list and revisited some of our past favorites. Please bear in mind our past recommendations: Value Vacation Destinations Vol.1 and Value Vacation Destinations Vol. 2.

    Here are some additional recommendations divided geographically:

    East

    * Smugglers' Notch, VT (smuggs.com) We rank Smuggs among the best of the best. They've created a family paradise, with a self-contained base village, programming for everyone and all-in-one pricing that's flexible - if you overlap weekends or high-season days, you only get charged high-season rates for those individual days. Their low-season (pre-Christmas, early January, late March) packages offer incomparable value. Downside: It's a fair piece to drive from many northeast population centers, getting from the main base village to Madonna and Sterling Mountains can be cumbersome, and ageing lifts might annoy some.

    * Mount Snow, VT (www.mountsnow.com): Often referred to as the "closest big mountain to New York City," Mount Snow has a glittery history of prank promotions. Today, it has evolved into a major monster of terrain parks partnered with parent–pleasing family programs. The ski/ride school does a super job with kids, and the special events line-up runs nonstop. The typical American Skiing Company Grand Summit Hotel heads the lodging line-up, but there’s plenty of slopeside condo development and less expensive shelter along Route 100. Apres-ski? How about 10-pin bowling just down the road? Now, that’s different. Downside: there’s no real town center here, and the place can resemble a December 26th sale day mob-scene-at-the-mall on busy weekends.

    * Bretton Woods, NH (www.brettonwoods.com): Any resort that features the Mt. Washington Hotel is going to be a winner. Indeed, that’s true of any resort that features Mt. Washington, for that matter. And here, as of 2004-5, you can actually ride the Mt. Washington Cog Railway part-way up, and ski down alongside the tracks. Different. The hotel itself remains one of New England’s finest gems and, while it can be on the pricey side, the value is undeniable: innumerable festivals and special events, full breakfasts and excellent dinner dining included with your room, expansive Nordic out the back door, and history all around. On-site motel, B&B and condo lodging options can be chosen, as well. Bretton Woods is known for its groomed blue runs, but recent expansions have provided some nifty gladed trains, and a state-of-the-art base lodge. Kid programs are top notch here, as well. Downside: still a dearth of true steep and gnarly challenges, and the terrain park set-up doesn’t rank with the big boys.

    * Sunday River, ME (www.sundayriver.com): We never stop marveling at how Sunday River can farm snow and keep everybody active. Without an overwhelming vertical drop to boost things along, the resort has instead expanded horizontally, and focused on snowmaking, grooming and a superb ski school. Lodging here, too, runs the gamut from a ski dorm to a pair of signature American Skiing Company Grand Summit hotels, and can therefore be quite affordable even in high season. In town, a few B&B-style and motel properties allow you to create affordable vacations, and the Bethel Inn presents a classic grand-old New England style venue. Nighttime activities, plenty of terrain parks (including a fine mini-park, and shuttle service into town highlight the family-friendly aspects. Downside: the wide horizontal spread of the resort over its many peaks can mean "there" can end up being a long way from "here" - particularly for those lodging at the Jordan Grand.

    * Okemo, VT (www.okemo.com): Yes, we’ve raved about Okemo before. So, why the encore? The opening (finally!) of Jackson Gore. This new base area/base lodge/hotel complex has the capacity to change the dynamics of an Okemo visit or vacation. It's more remotely located on the mountain than the main base area, which makes it much less crowded and calmer, and it's logistically easier to handle. Jackson Gore is very well served by high-speed lifts, and the number of trails centered on this base facility is gradually increasing annually. Meanwhile, Jackson Gore contains all the facilities that a good base should hold - food, ski school, day care, rental shop, repair shop, retail and parking. Okemo, of course, continues to be a family Mecca, where the intermediate level skiing/riding is second to none, the grooming immaculate and the on-snow programming creative. The choices of ski-and-stay packages are mind-boggling, albeit a bit confusing. Downside: if you stay in certain condos in early or late season, you must either ski or drive to the base area because the shuttle bus doesn't run; there's a distinct lack of serious challenge and the manicured blue runs can be awfully similar to each other after a while.

    * Snowshoe Resort, WV (www.snowshoemtn.com): Snowshoe likes to identify itself as "an upside down mountain" - that's to say, the "base" village is set on a ride at the top of the lifts and runs. There are advantages to this. Like you don't have to take that long, cold after-lunch lift ride. But, it's not upside-down-ness that makes Snowshoe a good family value. It's the combination of plenty of long, cruising runs, terrific terrain parks, a variety of ski/stay packages and an abundance of family-oriented on- and off-snow programming. With 57 runs, night skiing/riding, 100% snowmaking and excellent kids/day care facilities and programs, Snowshoe lives up to the standards of its Intrawest parent and its more famous name cousins like Whistler and Stratton. This probably is the best family destination in the mid-Atlantic. Downside: it's a long drive from anywhere, even Baltimore and Washington, DC.

    Rockies

    * Winter Park, CO (www.ski-winterpark.com): Big changes have been happening at the Park over the past couple of years, thanks to an alliance with Intrawest and the expansion of The Village at Winter Park and base area facilities. Zephyr Mountain Lodge offers accommodations in one, two or three-bedroom condos; and shops like Boxcar Deli, West Portal Rentals, Winter Park Junior and Sunspot Mercantile have helped make the entire base area experience more user-friendly. Winter Park, however, remains Winter Park. Few major resorts handle families as well. Period. The full range of terrain - from the gnarliest to the most gentle to high bowls and terrain parks - is at hand, as is an equally full range of off-slope activity options. And, consider offers like this: Christmas Week, and Martin Luther King and Presidents' Weekends ski/stay packages with lodging in town starting from $54 pp/pn, or slopeside from $78 pp/pn (based on four people in a 1 bedroom condominium). Downside: town requires a shuttle ride or short drive, and doesn't hold as many options as a place like Steamboat or the ambience of a Vail.

    * The Big Mountain, MT (www.bigmtn.com): Whitefish is a downright folksy town with a healthy dash of sophistication. The Big Mountain, a twenty-minute drive above town, has been for the past two years or so in the process of building its own base village. The combination is unbeatable, offering the best of both worlds - in-town or slopeside. But, in the tradition of many resorts that started out as small town ski areas, this remains very much a locally-oriented hill, very friendly, where families have been playing for generations. As with any major destination, all the terrain you can want is here, as are the programs. But, it's small-town the ambience we love. Downside: it's a far piece from most anywhere (although if you've got oodles of time, you can arrive by train from either the Midwest or the Pacific Northwest); and ,if it's important to you, it lacks the glitz of the high-end resorts.

    Photo courtesy Crested Butte * Crested Butte Mountain Resort, CO (www.cbmr.com): Sure, the Butte is famous for its extreme terrain, but those in the know know it's long offered some fo the best kids' programming around, and the hill actually hold a bunch of super intermediate cruising. And now the resort is newly under the ownership of the Mueller family, those same folks who have made Okemo, VT, and Mt. Sunapee, NH, into family havens. It's only going to get better here and, thanks to relatively poor business at the Butte in recent seasons, vacationing here should be a bargain for a while. The town of Crested Butte, too, is a gem of an historical place, where there's plenty of community spirit. Downside: a bit remote, being set 45-minutes' drive from the Gunnison airport; southwestern locale can mean some lean snow years.

    * Steamboat Springs, CO (steamboat.com): Steamboat invented the "Kids Ski Free" program, and still do it wonderfully - you buy it (lift tickets, rentals, lodging, etc.), you're kid does it free; special promotion this autumn with United Airlines offers "Kids Fly Free"; good early-season discount packages; excellent ski school and day care; special kids-only lifts; a real town in which to play, shop and dine - or watch ski jumping competitions; full range of terrain with fantastic tree skiing; full range of lodging, slopeside or otherwise; free bus system goes everywhere. Downside: lift system can be a bit awkward; relatively low elevation can sometimes cause iffy snow; base area and getting to/from outlying condos can be confusing.

    * Snowbasin, UT (snowbasin.com): Set outside Ogden, Snowbasin is part of the "other" Utah - those ski resorts not located within an hour from Salt Lake City. But, this is one large hill, with nothing but state-of-the-art lifts and, as a Sun Valley sister resort, it’s supplied with luxuriously overstated base and on-hill lodges. Crowds are never an issue, and that bodes well for personalized attention in the Children’s Center and ski school. The Olympic downills were staged here, so you know there’s some serious steep. But, the groomers are welcoming wide avenues. Because it’s a bit off the beaten path, there’s affordable lodging - basically condo style. Downside: the resort is rather isolated, resulting in minimal apres-ski, shopping and entertainment opportunities, and slopeside lodging isn’t there.

    * Beaver Creek, CO (beavercreek.com): Pre-Christmas or late season. They'll spoil you rotten; the expert terrain holds wonderful surprises; superb on-slope programming and day care; its own performing arts center; tons of off-slope/apres-ski offerings; just one main base area; super grooming; fantastic shopping and dining (albeit expensive). Downside: way too expensive for most mere mortals during high season, although money can be saved by lodging in nearby Avon.

    * Snowmass, CO (aspensnowmass.com): The "out of town" member of Aspen’s four-mountain setup, Snowmass offers the self–contained aspects that serve families well. The plethora of slopeside lodging provides skiing convenience, and a wealth of kid-friendly programming - especially for teens - benefits everyone. Lodging runs the gamut, of course, from mid-range hotels to luxury condos. Town and Aspen’s other three peaks, accessible by free bus, are not all that far away. Downside: despite Snowmass’s plethora of activities, eateries and facilities, you’re not actually in the town of Aspen, which might be a downer for some folks.

    * Brundage, ID (brundage.com): Is this place a little gem, or what? Locally owned, the resort lacks frills but makes up for it with a pure ski/ride experience. It looks small, but skis large and, because it sits rather remotely, and as this is primarily a summer vacation destination, the going winter rates are most affordable. They have the only drive-up day care/kids’ center we’ve seen, there’s tree skiing aplenty and a home spun atmosphere that major resorts have long forgotten. Downside: no slopeside lodging to speak of with lodging in town, about 20 minutes away, and minimal off-slope diversions; this is not big resort vacationing but, for ski purists, dollar-for-dollar, it’s value packed.

    West

    * North Tahoe, CA (www.tahoefun.org): There are so many resorts in the area it will be tough to get to one every day for two weeks! Count 'em: Sugar Bowl, Donner Ski Ranch, Boreal, Soda Springs, Tahoe Donner, Northstar, on the Truckee Side; and Squaw Valley, Alpine Meadows, Homewood, Diamond Peak - on the North Tahoe side. Add in South Shore resorts, Heavenly, Sierra-at-Tahoe and Kirkwood and there's just too much to cover for any normal family. Upside: tons of world-class terrain. Multi-day interchangeable tickets to northshore resorts. Downside: Tahoe is busy on weekends. Plan on visiting the smaller resorts during peak periods.

    * Mammoth Mountain, CA (www.mammothmountain.com): Big? Oh my. Diverse? Oh yes. Mammoth lives up to its name. With a new base village pretty much fully on line, the resort that Southern Californians flock to now offers pretty much everything, from ski in/out to plain old motels and a classic mountain inn. The scale of the terrain matches just about any major resort on the continent, and the scale of the on-hill programming does, too. There’s any kind of skiing/riding you prefer. In town, there’s enough shopping, dining and alternative diversions to keep most of us occupied. For those who want a hill that’s a bit more approachable in scope, little sister June Mountain is just up the road. Downside: the is the SoCal skiing Mecca, and that means big time crowds on weekends and holidays.

    * Heavenly Resort, CA/NV (www.skiheavenly.com): A whole new world has been born at Heavenly in recent seasons with the advent of the so-called Park Avenue Project, the Village at Heavenly and the new gondola that runs from it. Now there are more than 5,000 rooms within walking distance of the lifts - not to mention upscale shopping, an outdoor ice skating rink, and a multi-plex cinema. (Bring the kids to Fire & Ice Improvisational Grill where they can choose their own food and watch it being cooked on a huge circular hibachi grill.) Heavenly, of course, has size - 4,800 acres, 86 trails and three bowls. Adventure Park, atop the gondola, offers high-elevation snowtubing, snowshoeing and Nordic skiing; and the off-hill activities can include a Lake Tahoe cruise. On-hill are all the expected facilities (although make your day care reservations as far ahead as possible). And, if you pack a babysitter along with your entourage, parents can go play at the casinos on the Nevada side of the state line. Then, there are the views of Lake Tahoe, which are second to none. Downside: South Tahoe/State Line can be crowded and traffic-laden (despite steps to alleviate the problem).

    * Northstar-at-Tahoe (www.skinorthstar.com): Families love Northstar. Good terrain and parks, excellent service, quaint village, and good deals on vacation packages during low season. The small customer service touches - like ferrying you and your gear from parking lot to slopes - can’t be beat, and the ski school offers creative options, like parent-and-child classes and a family terrain park. Phase one of the new base village premieres for 2005-6, with a new ice rink. Downside: Can be very crowded on weekends.

    Canada

    As we keep saying, with the monetary exchange rate being what it is - and even though the Canadian dollar has rallied some recently - all of Canada is a great bargain - and most of it a good value.

    * Silver Star, BC (www.skisilverstar.com): Ski Silver Star was conceived as a family place, and it's grown into a full-bore resort with terrain for everyone; fun "western" themed base village with family entertainment some evenings; good day care and kids programs; single base; tons of snow; combination packages with Big White; night skiing; world class Nordic skiing; significantly lower pricing than coastal BC resorts. Downside: isolated; limited dining/shopping options.

    * Mont Sutton, Quebec (www.montsutton.com): We love Mont Sutton because it represents the best in old-fashioned snowsliding. Narrow, twisty trails, plenty of trees through which to ski and a spilled-spaghetti trail system that elicits a sense of adventure on a mountain that's big enough, but not all that big. The runs are mostly segregated by degree of difficulty, which keeps the hot shots away from the novices, but even the green section delivers that twisty sense of adventure. This is another one that's family owned, and it shows it. There's a small base lodge, and an overwhelmingly quaint air about the place, with some slopeside lodging and a nearby atmospheric Quebecois village.

    * Whistler/Blackomb, BC (www.whistler-blackcomb.com): The Killington of the West, or the Vail of the Northwest - size matters and there's plenty of everything here; best for folks with teens and older kids; plenty of après-ski/off-slope options, dining, shopping, whatever; good day care, etc., and excellent low season package values. With on-slope programming, like most major resorts, they do everything, and everything they do, they do well. Downside: too big and too trendy for many folks; huge vertical drop combined with coastal locale can mean odd weather, even rain on the lower half of the hill; can be expensive, even if you're spending Canadian dollars.

    * Mont Tremblant, Que. (www.tremblant.com): Locals may complain that the base village is "faux" Quebecois architecture, but that doesn’t diminish its charm. Indeed, of all Intrawest’s developments (from Whistler to Copper to Stratton), we think this is the base complex that works best - if for no other reason than they’ve made an effort to infuse it with a local sensibility and some personality. They key to value here is looking a package deals, many of which can be quite attractive in low season. The lift system is superb, the mountain itself skis big by eastern standards, terrific Nordic is nearby, and the lodging is first rate. And, heck, you can practice your French. Got a kid who speaks only English? Not to worry, ski school instructors speak your language, too. Downside: this can be one cold mountain, especially in December and January, and certain main downhill routes can see way too much traffic.

    Photo courtesy Big White * Big White, BC (www.bigwhite.com): Sister resort to Silver Star, Big White, too, was created for families. We're talking about ski weeks that feature a skating party every Friday, a games-and-movie night for 6-12 year olds, a Wednesday theme night and fireworks, and a Carnival Night. Parks galore dot the mountain, from the Plaza mini-pipe right at the heart of things, to the TELUS Terrain Park that features a park, rail garden, half pipes, boarder/skier-cross, and a fun family race area. Lodging on the mountain is plentiful and runs the full range from hotel rooms to chalets. Snow conditions here are about as reliable as anywhere on the continent, and the base village is so convenient that the main street in it doubles as a ski run ,as well as a pedestrian way. And, then, there's the Mega Snowcoaster Alpine Tube Ride. It's the largest mountain tube park in North America. All this at Canadian dollar prices. Downside: it's a bit hard to reach for folks from stateside, requiring a commuter flight from Calgary or Vancouver.

    ...... Mitch Kaplan is the author of The Unofficial Guide to the Mid-Atlantic with Kids, The Cheapskate's Guide to Myrtle Beach and The Golf Book of Lists. He is a contributor to The Unofficial Guide to New England & New York with Kids and to the annual guide Ski America & Canada.

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